Photograph by Helen Corben
The clever thing about poppies is that they have evolved an efficient survival strategy. The seeds of the poppy (those tiny black things which are sprinkled on posh bread) are able to lie dormant in the soil for years. If the plant is turned by the plough, or trampled by animals, the seeds can remain in the soil for decades, until such time as the soil is disturbed and the seeds are brought to the surface where they get the light, warmth and moisture they need for germination.
The Western Front in WW1 was an ideal place for poppies. The ground was being disturbed on an industrial scale; the digging of trenches, dugouts, mines, the explosion of shells and the digging of graves, all disturbed the soil and provided the perfect conditions for poppies, and they grew in their millions.
The parallels between the red of the poppy's petals and the red of the blood which was being spilt on the battlefields; and the contrast between the innocent beauty of the poppy with the carnage and horror of the injuries which led to the spilling of that blood, were not lost on observers. It was as if the spilt blood was blooming from the soil.
One such observer was John McCrae. John was a doctor in the Canadian Army and in 1915 he was working in an advanced dressing station just north of Wipers at a place called Essex Farm. (It wasn't really Essex Farm, but the Essex regiment had first held the position early in the war and its name had stuck on the trench maps. The Essex Rgt had moved on and there was nothing left of the farm). The area consisted of a series of trenches and dugouts dug into the embankment of the Yperlee canal. The dugouts were little more than caves lined with sandbags, covered in corrugated iron and more sandbags to keep out the rain, both wet and steel. It was in these dugouts that John and his team tried to save lives. Casualties were stretchered in from the front line and treated for their wounds. They performed operations and tried to stabilise casualties before sending them down the line to a casualty clearing station and then on into the chain of medical facilities. Those that made it that far were the lucky ones, those that died in the process were buried in a cemetery to the left of the dugouts and their graves were marked with rough wooden crosses..... And the poppies grew...
It was during a lull in the casualty flow that John, observing this scene, penned a poem which became famous and iconic. Someone sent a copy of it to Punch magazine and they printed it. In today's jargon "It went viral" and was reprinted all over the world. In 1918 an American lady; Moina Michael, used John's poem to enhance her campaign to have the poppy declared the American symbol of remembrance and of fund-raising for men of the American Legion. In 1921 the fledgeling organisation which was to become the Royal British Legion also adopted it.
Essex Farm is still there. The trenches and dugouts have been replaced by bags filled with concrete to prevent erosion. There is a bronze plaque outlining John McCrae's story and a copy of his poem. The cemetery is no longer a makeshift affair, but is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery and, in common with all Commonwealth War Graves the world over, it is kept immaculately and is a haven of peace, despite the busy road which now passes close by. The cemetery contains 1,102 graves, The oldest soldier is Guardsman John Boardman aged 49, the youngest is Rifleman Valentine Strudwick aged 15. (Guided tours are available on request).
John's poem is a little unusual in that it is told through one of those dead soldiers. He talks to us from the grave.(which is a little ironic as John didn't see out the war - before its end he too was in the ground). It is a short poem, only fifteen lines, but he eloquently and quickly sets the scene, conveys to us the beauty of life, its fragility, and the permanence of death. And then he gets angry. The last verse is unashamedly a call to arms. He urges us to join the struggle. In 1915 more effort was required. Every man at the front was a volunteer. Conscription wasn't introduced until late 1916, so this verse is blatant jingoistic patriotism to encourage more men and women to join the war effort. But from today's perspective those same words can be read, not as a call to the Colours, but a call to remember, a call for us to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe those who died, that we might live in freedom. It's called In Flanders Fields...
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Okeford Fitzpaine Roll of Honour
1914 – 1918
William Henry Clarke
Lionel Bertram Collis
Samuel Rose Fox, D.S.M.
Sydney John Fox
Albert Henry Hilliar
Cyril Thomas Rose Jacob
Maurice Daniel Miller
Arthur Frederick Ridout
Charles James Ridout
Howard Frank Ridout
William John Ridout
1939 - 1945
William Kendall Clarke
Douglas Arthur Shaw
(If copied, please always include this footnote.)
(c) Andrew Vickers, November, 2017
Given at the Remembrance Day Service
in the Parish Church of St. Andrew,
Okeford Fitzpaine, Dorset, Great Britain
If you wish to propagate this,
please ask >here<
He was getting old and paunchy
and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion,
Telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he once fought in
And the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies;
They were heroes, every one.
And 'tho sometimes to his neighbors
His tales became a joke,
All his buddies listened quietly
For they knew where of he spoke.
But we'll hear his tales no longer,
For ol' Joe has passed away,
And the world's a little poorer
For a Veteran died today.
He won't be mourned by many,
Just his children and his wife.
For he lived an ordinary,
Very quiet sort of life.
He held a job and raised a family,
Going quietly on his way;
And the world won't note his passing,
'Tho a Veteran died today.
When politicians leave this earth,
Their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing,
And proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell of their life stories
From the time that they were young,
But the passing of a Veteran
Goes unnoticed, and unsung.
Is the greatest contribution
To the welfare of our land,
Some jerk who breaks his promise
And cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow
Who in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his country
And offers up his life?
The politician's stipend
And the style in which he lives,
Are often disproportionate,
To the service that he gives.
While the ordinary Veteran,
Who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal
And perhaps a pension, small.
It is not the politicians
With their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom
That our country now enjoys
Should you find yourself in danger,
With your enemies at hand,
Would you really want some cop-out,
With his ever-waffling stand?
Or would you want a Veteran
His home, his country, his kin,
Just a common Veteran,
Who would fight until the end.
He was just a common Veteran,
And his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us
We may need his likes again.
For when countries are in conflict,
We find the Veteran's part,
Is to clean up all the troubles
That the politicians start.
If we cannot do him honor
While he's here to hear the praise,
Then at least let's give him homage
At the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline
In the paper that might say:
"OUR COUNTRY IS IN MOURNING,
A VETERAN DIED TODAY."